| Shirin Ebadi in Paris on Friday. (Reuters)
Oct. 10: Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize today for championing human rights in Iran in an award designed to spur democracy in the Islamic world as a US-led war raged next door with establishment of democracy as one of its motives.
Ebadi, a lawyer, was chosen ahead of Pope John Paul and former Czech President Vaclav Havel for battling to defend the rights of women and children. Iran’s first female judge — before the 1979 Islamic revolution forced her to step down in favour of men — was described by the Nobel Committee as a “sound professional” and a “courageous person” who had “never heeded threats to her own safety”.
“This prize gives me the energy to continue my fight,” Ebadi told a news conference in Paris without the headscarf required under Islamic law.
“We hope that the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world, and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support,” the committee said.
Ebadi, jailed several times during her career and once branded a threat to the Islamic system, will travel to Oslo to receive the $1.3-million prize at the December 10 ceremony.
“It’s a great honour to receive this prize. It’s not because you’re a Muslim that you can’t respect human rights, so all real Muslims should be really happy with this prize,” she said.
Iran’s first Nobel Peace Prize was met without fanfare by official media, but reformers cheered Ebadi’s achievement as a victory for women’s rights and political change in the Islamic Republic. Conservative-controlled state television and radio took several hours to announce Ebadi’s award, then did so without comment, reflecting the struggle between reformists and conservatives.
Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a close aide to pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, said the announcement was “very good news for every Iranian”. He stressed the comments reflected his personal view, not that of the government. But late tonight, the government officially congratulated her.
Individual conservatives reacted angrily. “This prize carries the message that Europe intends to put further pressure on human rights issues in Iran as a political move to achieve its particular objectives,” said Amir Mohebian, an editor of the hardline conservative Resalat newspaper.
Ebadi said she opposed outside intervention in Iran. “I’m against any foreign intervention in Iranian affairs. People of the country have to fight for human rights in our own country.”
Nobel watchers say the committee has wanted to promote the cause of moderate Muslims since September 11, 2001, to try to avert a gulf of religious intolerance after US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran was once branded part of an “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush with pre-war Iraq and North Korea.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa, the 1983 Nobel winner, said the Pope should have won. “I have nothing against this lady, but if there is anyone alive who deserves this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it is the Holy Father,” Walesa said.
A prize to the ailing Polish Pope or to Havel could have been too much like a long-service award when Alfred Nobel, the Swedish founder of the awards, said he wanted to inspire “dreamers”.
“The committee does not live in an empty room. We have antennae out and feel where there are areas which now need to get into focus,” the head of the five-member Nobel committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said about the prize to Ebadi.
“We wish to see that in the nation that Ebadi comes from women should come into focus, the Muslims need to come into focus — every country in the world needs to get into focus where human rights are violated,” he said.
Kari Vogt, a University of Oslo researcher who was among a few who had correctly tipped the Iranian, said: “Ebadi stands for a non-Western way of looking at human rights. That is a strong signal.”
Ebadi has acted as defence lawyer for a wide range of political activists, earning a reputation for taking on cases others were too afraid to touch.
“It’s not easy to be a woman today in Iran because they have laws that are against the rights of women,” she said.
A lawyer, writer and part-time lecturer at Tehran University, she has argued passionately that Sharia law could be adapted to modern times without undermining Islam.
“There is no contradiction between Islam and human rights,” she said. “If a country abuses human rights in the name of Islam, then it is not the fault of Islam.”